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All Hell Breaks Loose

19 April 2011

Originally posted on the Crossing’s Lenten blog The Wilderness Way

Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
–Matthew 27:50-54

On Palm Sunday, the central point of the Liturgy of the Word is the reading of the Passion Gospel. Especially when chanted by various voices, it is one of the mostly highly emotive moments in the liturgical year. The mood left over from the triumphant procession with waving palm fronds is turned on its head as we realize that the “hosannas” rung out early were misplaced…sorely, sorely misplaced. This triumphant entry does not end with the King taking his throne, but instead with his being betrayed by those closest to him and being brutally murdered on the one of the worst implements of torture that the human imagination has been able to concoct. We know this is coming because we have heard the story many, many times, and participated in this drama before. But it still slaps you across the face and says, “Here is your King, your Son of God, dying on a Cross. Where is your hope now?”

It is easy to focus on the end of the first verse quoted above, the moment at which Jesus dies. In fact, in many churches the whole congregation takes to its knees following its reading. This is the watershed moment, the instant at which—both to his disciples and to us—this whole matter seems a sham. The figurehead has been murdered. His mother is in utter turmoil. The inner circle has fled and is in hiding.

And then, all Hell breaks loose. The curtain in the Temple, which separated the Holy of Holies (the location of the Ark of the Covenant, and of God’s Presence itself, that the High Priest could only enter one day out of the year) from the Sanctuary (where the Altar of Incense was), is ripped in two, from the top to the bottom. The symbolism here is plentiful, but a chief image is that the way that we understand God is suddenly, violently, destroyed, and God literally rips open the doors and rushes out. The earth, the most solid, dependable thing we can imagine, shakes underneath us and rocks—even rocks—are split in half. And, the worst boundary breech imaginable, tombs are opened and the dead walk. Death itself, the final judge, is turned inside out upon itself and starts producing life. Hell is literally breaking open.

And all because of this one man’s death. This one man’s death causes the world to be turned upside down. The human beings of the day may not have recognized what had just happened through this man’s death, but God, the earth, and Death were all thrown into utter chaos and started behaving outside of the ways we thought they could.

The moment at which Jesus dies is a watershed, because from that point onward, we can no longer look at anything the same way. Because all those things which we used to base our whole sense of reality upon have been turned upside down. And all we can say is, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

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